As the New Zealand Defence Force continues its march towards a high-tech, agile and networked combat force by 2025, its soldiers are training to jump out of helicopters, making them ready to be dropped quickly into any complex terrain, whether mountainous, open country, or urban centres. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer went along for the ride.
Inside the gun-grey helicopter, 10 fresh-faced, inexperienced troops give the thumbs-up signal. Camouflaged fatigues tucked neatly, bootlaces taped, they share nervous silent laughter.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter banks across the murky skies. As it loops above Burnham Military Camp, the rotor blades whip and chop – not as distinctive as its legendary "Huey" predecessor, but with its doors removed and the mission awaiting the young soldiers, it's impressive and imposing nonetheless. A two-minute warning is shouted.
They double-check each other. Wide eyes, wry smiles. Under the two pairs of gloves, the knuckles are no doubt white.
The NH90 pilot hovers 40-feet (12m) above the open, grassy field and the loadmasters give the sign. The two soldiers nearest the opposing doors, unfurl the thick ropes. They uncoil heavily to the ground.
Today is the first time these young light infantry troops – plus medics, engineers, signallers, and electronic warfare specialists - from Delta Company 2nd/1st Battalion of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment have jumped from a helicopter. Sure, they've trained shimmying down the rope from a static tower – starting at just 2-3m above the ground, before slowly rising up to 25m. They liken it to sliding down a wobbly fireman's pole. It just happens to be attached to a giant hovering chopper.
They have no harness. Fast-roping they call it, defined as, "descending at controlled speed".
The grizzly loadmasters earlier stressed the importance of paying attention.
"It's your life at the end of the day and if it doesn't go right… splat."
Many find the tower a scarier proposition than leaping out of a helicopter – they slowly walk up the stairs, seeing through the grates to the ground below, feeling the wind.
"It's a very rational human fear," says Delta company's commanding officer Major Tim Ewing-Jarvie.
But slowly they get used to it, going up step by step.
The progressive training means that by the time they reach the helicopter, they should feel pretty confident.
"By then you're having a great time, the adrenalin starts going through your system, and you can't believe you're lucky enough to be getting paid to do something this cool," one officer says.
And it shows. For when the time comes, putting total faith in their training, skills and experience, they leap from the NH90. Zero hesitation. Near perfect technique; high hands, foot wrapped around rope, tucked just so.
One after the other, they disappear out the open doors on both sides.
As soon as they touch down on the earth below, they crouch into covering positions.
When all 10 comrades are clear, the pilot flies away and that section of the training exercise is complete. They made it.
"This skillset increases our agility by delivering highly-trained and well-equipped troops at precise times and locations of advantage, while also giving us the ability to rapidly respond to opportunities or threats within a dynamic operating environment," says Ewing-Jarvie, a 12-year Army veteran.
After their first training descent at 12m in "clean fatigue" – just their camouflaged uniforms – they do about another six that day – slowly adding weight, like Kevlar body armour, helmet, weapons, maybe a small day-bag, getting up to 25-30kg each.
They also add elevation – ending up jumping out 27m above the ground.
Ewing-Jarvie says like most training drills, it's down to repetition, building up muscle-memory so it can be done in any conditions and under stress.
While being operationally important, the exercises also bring intangible results.
"It comes from having confronted something that makes you feel uncertain and you look it in the eyes and do it anyway," he says.
"You can see it in the soldiers afterwards, they're walking a couple of inches taller, the shoulders are back and chins are up – it builds a really confident and professional soldier."